A conversation I had one sunday afternoon, with burlesque performer and stripteaser Stephanie Brooks; aka Beatrix Von Bourbon.
SB: What were your first thoughts about tattooing?
I remember a friend mentioning that when we were growing up, I once said that I would never get tattooed; that I didn’t understand why you would want to commit to the permanence. A few years later, I actually found myself doodling tattoo designs of all of these patterns and designs which meant something to me at the time, which is kind of funny to look back on. My first tattoo was when I was nineteen, and I was in a relationship with a boy whose father was a Tattooer. I can’t remember the exact decision making process, but I think it must have been the result of me doodling on myself and ended up getting 5 stars on my foot.
SB: But the aesthetic of your main tattoos are now so artist orientated and elaborate. How did you begin to come across such styles?
As with many things in my life, it is to do with the people who I have been in love with at the time; or has a special place for in my heart. I had three tattoos during my first relationship. When I moved to Leeds for Uni, I became friends with some Suicide Girls, who knew a lot more about tattoo artists than me and through them I learned a lot about different artists. Around 2005/6, I started a new relationship with a guy who has since gone on to be academically focused on tattoos as art, and he introduced me to tattooers who created work as art, and so far away from the flash that I thought was the extent of tattooing in my head. Thats how I learned about tattooing as an artistic medium, which I just knew so little about before.
SB: Are most of your tattoos inspired by Burlesque culture & mid 20th century era?
I think, my tattoos and my burlesque both come from the same place in me, and that they are both related to one another somehow within me and my identity. The reasons of being tattooed and the things Ive chose have really progressed as times passed. I’ve had tattoos because they look nice; because Ive fallen in love with the artists’ work and I just want something by them. I’ve had, what I would refer to as holes on my body where Ive had a tattoo done and its left my body out of balance, and so I want another piece to bring everything else into an alignment Im happy with. I’ve been tattooed about concepts and ideologies which I want on myself forever to (which I think is a bit naive, because you grow up and what seems important at the time won’t always been important, but at the same time it kind of becomes like a photography and you look back on it for nostalgia).
SB: What artists have you been tattooed by?
The first renowned artist that tattooed me was Aaron Bell from Slave to the Needle in Seattle; he did the centre part of my chest piece. Then I got tattooed by Uncle Alan from Denmark, who has done 4 pieces on me. I got also tattooed by Juho from Finland; I was walking past the stands at a convention, and I had the idea in my mind that I wanted a love letter tattooed behind an ear. I saw his work and he just seemed like the right person for it! Then I had three years of not getting any tattoos and I had stopped spending so much time around the tattoo collective, and so I hadn’t had the inspiration.
But a while ago, some work by Crispy Lennox from The Black Garden Studio popped up in my feed on Facebook and I was blown away by it. I set six months aside to get my head around the fact that I was going to get tattooed again and to save up for it, to make sure that I had the money set aside.
Now my body is out of balance again, so Im going to have to get some more tattoos to make sure that its in balance again
SB: How does one go about choosing a burlesque name?
There are loads of different techniques. For me, the name came even before I was performing. I was at a student house in Leeds, and there was a housemate of mine who really didn’t like her surname for a few reasons and she was tired of spelling it out to tele-sales people. One evening, when we were all merry, we started to hypothesise about what we would change our names to and I remember clearly saying Cherry Von Bourbon. About a year later, I began performing and still liked the ‘Von Bourbon’ part of the name but added Beatrix, from Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill: primarily because she is the antithesis of what I am. She’s really tough, and resilient; vengeful. A couple years later I found out that Beatrix Von Bourbon was actually a real person from the 14th century; a French royal of the time which is a nice coincidence.
SB: What do you think is to be taken from Burlesque as a performance, from a modern perspective?
It depends who you ask and what area of Burlesque you refer to, because there is quite a spectrum of approaches. Some audience members favour politically charged Burlesque (men playing with female imagery etc) which goes through to parody of celebrity culture, and satirical cultural references. It isn’t always with a striptease focus; often the comedy can be the focus. Sometimes the striptease is very minimal and there’s no reveal at the end. On the other end of the spectrum looks at how the art form has evolved over the past hundred years and is more aesthetically pleasing; focusing on beauty and movement, and just making the body look beautiful (classically referenced costuming)
One of the main problems with burlesque is that people don’t think that striptease is a skill, so if someone can include something that the audience definitely can’t do for themselves to some, that adds engagement.
Then you get people who really do play with the ways in which burlesque can be modern. Theres a whole night in New York, which focuses on video games in relation to burlesque and has people doing stripteases of video game characters.
SB: So what branch of Burlesque would you say your work is?
Currently, Im really wanting to move away from all of the nostalgia, because to me, when burlesque happened the first time round, in the late Victorian times, it was cutting edge at that time. It was really playing on the borders of decency; really pushing the line. These women were so bold and brassy, and courageous…. and now, a lot of performers look back to that time as providing an expression of sexuality that is safe; that when that style is shown now, it signified classic femininity and sexuality that is safe, tasteful and elegant. The fact is however, back when they were doing it, it was anything from that.
Now, I want to create numbers that are contemporary and modern. I’ve just put a ban on myself, of wearing red lipstick (laughs); generally, that’s out. Im changing a lot of the soundtracks to my numbers so that they are more modern and looking to use modern costuming techniques and aesthetics, aiming for more of a high fashion take on burlesque striptease.
SB: How difficult is it to convey eroticism within a routine?
When I started performing, I felt that is was required for me to pay homage to burlesques roots and to acknowledge the fact that the word itself comes from the Italian root; to parody or satire.
After going on a journey in taking it literally and creating numbers that reflected this archaic take on the word, I took a step back for some time and came to terms with how I see the word and what I wanted to convey through it.
Now in my numbers, I think I pretty much end up me showing a strand of myself, or acting out a sexual moment. Recently Ive started performing what I would call a classic striptease, (which is basically the removal of clothing) but the focus for me is my body language; things like breathing and what the pace of my breathing conveys to the audience (mimicking a sexual act). The more you perform, the more you learn about the neausances and the subtle things you can play with. Most of them involve thinking about an aspect of sexuality; some are purely aesthetic.
SB: Is your work ever received negatively? Do people ever not understand what you do?
Absolutely. Not so much from strangers, but more so from people who have watched me perform. Common criticisms are: what I do involves no skill, being too fat, too thin; tits too small, tits too big, having cellulite, having tattoos…
SB: Really? I was under the assumption that in most modern contexts, tattoos and Burlesque went hand in hand?
They used to, when I was starting out and it was about being rebellious, but now its more common to be asked for girls who are classically beautiful in the kind of anonymous sense, as opposed to the girls who are quite tattooed and fixed in terms of identity.
SB: Aside from your Burlesque work, what takes up your free time?
Ive been making stuff since I was a kid; and Ive been trying many different hobbies and pastimes in the process too. The first thing I really loved was dance and I always had a strong sense of movement when it came to dance. I always used to play musical instruments when I was younger too and always had something to lug around. I have always written creatively since around fourteen; I like the idea of making physical what I can picture in my head. Im about to start as a guest blogger for Erotica, so thats given me a reason to write every month. Im also massively into sewing, which I romanticise because my mothers, father, was a tailor and so its always been in the family. A couple of years ago, I mastered the basics and have just loved making things.
SB: So being a Burlesque perfomer as well as Stripper, how do you see your job title, socially?
I would say that women that work in strip clubs wouldn’t call me a stripper in the sense that I don’t go fully nude; I prefer saying Im a stripper, because I like the controversy that goes with it. I like that some people say to me; No you’re not, you’re an artist, because I can then say: “Don’t be so hard on strippers!” They’re artists too; they kind of work harder than I do in some ways. Part of their job is about making conversation with people and selling their work. They spend their entire night touting for business; they are on of the whole night, whereas I just have to do my number and leave.
For me, at this moment in time, the word stripper has more positive connotations than saying I am a Burlesquer, but ask me in two years time and I would have changed my opinion.
SB: How relevant do you feel Burlesque is socially; in the sense that we are surrounded by fast media via which we can access sex, nudity etc? Is it’s purpose now to keep us more grounded in regards to how we approach sexuality?
I think in terms of (female) Burlesque, it is by women, for women and its a space in which we can stop, pause and think about what sexuality really is and what it means to us, because in the age we live in now with the media, everything is so fast to the extent that we don’t have time to think about it. Performing live, and being in that exact physical space, there is no choice other to engage with that person; it is immediate and they are a real individual. When it comes to sexuality, burlesque can offer us a place to explore it in a slower and more purposeful manner, but at the same time Burlesque isn’t always about sexuality: sometimes its about humour for example.
It has always been by the working class, so in that sense it has always had to be socially relevant. I think as soon as burlesque just becomes a beautiful thing, it will be over. it has to be about our culture and how we fit into it.
Portrait/interview- Dorrell Merritt